The Truth About Animals…or not?

In The Truth About Animals, Lucy Cooke chose thirteen animal species to explore our changing relationship with animals by telling the story of how our perception of animals has changed in over two thousand years of written history.  Misconceptions about animals have always been a reflection of human culture.  Although scientific methods of studying animals have improved our understanding, we should assume that the “truth” continues to elude us because we cannot altogether escape our tendency to anthropomorphize animals.  We project our own motivations onto animals which often prevents us from accurately observing their behavior outside our own judgmental framework.  We have selected a few examples from Lucy Cooke’s book to illustrate these issues.

Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins

Three-toed sloth in Panama

Human society values hard work, which has prevented us from seeing the sloth as a respectable citizen of the animal world.  In fact, we named the sloth with the intention of insulting it for its lazy life style.  Although the sloth sprawls helplessly on the ground, in the trees, where it lives, it can move from branch to branch with surprising grace and agility, although slowly.  They have fewer muscles than would be needed to move upright on the ground which enables them to hang in the trees while using little energy.  Early explorers to the New World judged the sloth from their perspective as ground dwellers rather than from the sloth’s perspective in the trees.  The sloth’s reputation is not enhanced by being dirty and smelly.

The sloth eats leaves but lacks teeth to chew them.  The leaves are slowly broken down by bacteria in the sloth’s gut and the slowness of digestion is in sync with its slow metabolism and low body temperature.  Sloths have survived for about 64 million years, far longer than the mere 300,000 years of the ancestors of Homo sapiens, proving that they are well adapted to where they live.  The sloth is a survivor, the ultimate test of the success of a species.

Penguins:  Paragons of family values or not?

Emperor penguin family. Creative Commons

People love penguins, primarily because they are cute.  We like their torpedo shaped pint size and the dapper tuxedo they wear.  Neither their shape nor their outerwear were designed to appeal to us.  They are flightless birds that are extremely efficient catchers of fish.  Their wings propel them through the water at speeds of over 30 miles per hour.  Their feet are propellers, steering their quick maneuvers in pursuit of fish.  On land, they are awkward waddlers, which we find endearing.

Their white fronts are less visible to predators in the water when viewed from below with the glare of the light above them.  Their black backs also hide them from being seen in the water from above.

The movie March of the Penguins greatly increased the popularity of penguins partly because it featured a particular species of penguin, the emperor penguin, that is a dedicated father.  The emperor colony trudges deep into the frozen wastes of Antarctica to lay their eggs and hatch their chicks.  When the egg is laid, father penguin puts the egg on top of his feet to keep it off the frozen ice and sits gingerly on it to keep it warm.  Mother penguin promptly leaves because her energy is depleted by producing the egg.  She goes to sea to fish and restore her energy to return 2 months later.  Then they take turns raising the chick and feeding it.

March of the Penguins tried to sweeten the idealized penguin family by claiming that they are monogamous.  In fact, 85% of penguins choose different mates every year.  The time frame for raising the penguin chick is perilously short, allowing no time to hunt for last year’s mate among thousands of lookalikes.

But not all penguin species are scrupulous family members.  Adélie penguins exchange rocks for sex with unattached males.  The rocks are needed to elevate nests above frigid water that can drown eggs and chicks.  And the rocks are at a premium where the penguins nest, so mother penguin makes a deal for the safety of her nest.

Adélie penguins engage in other scandalous sexual behavior that was observed by a scientific expedition in 1911-12:  “They were ‘gangs of hooligan cocks’ whose ‘passions seem to have passed beyond their control’ and whose ‘constant acts of depravity’ run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behavior to gang rape, necrophilia, and pedophilia.  Chicks were ‘sexually misused by these hooligans,’ including one who ‘misused it before the very eyes of its parent.’  Stray chicks were crushed and ‘very often suffer indignity and death at the hands of these hooligan cocks.’” (1) When the scientific expedition published its report of their findings, these dirty bits were deleted from the publication and kept under lock and key in the museum until being discovered in 2009.

If animal behavior was unseemly in the eyes of early scientists, the public didn’t need to know about it.  I think we can safely assume that there is less such censorship by scientists today, partly because there is greater tolerance for the vast range of sexual behavior among humans.

The mystery of migration


Nesting stork in Morocco, 2013

Ms. Cooke chooses the stork to tell the long story of unraveling the mysteries of migration.  The stork arrives in Europe in early spring which historically coincided with the annual baby boom.  Nine months earlier, on June 21st summer solstice was celebrated with great festivals during which many children were conceived.  This coincidental arrival of storks and babies resulted in the stork becoming a symbol of fertility and childbirth.  A young couple consulting a doctor about their disappointment in not having a child were surprised when told that the stork nesting on their chimney was not a substitute for the sexual encounter they had thought was unnecessary.

Theories about where the storks went when they left their huge nests of sticks were no less imaginative.  In the 17th century an Oxford-educated physics scholar proposed the theory that the storks migrated to the moon:  “’The stork, when it hath bred, and the young fully fledged…all rise together, and fly in one great flock…first near the earth, but after higher…till at last this great cloud…appears less and less by distance, till it utterly disappears.  Now, Whither should be creatures go unless it were to the moon?’”  (1)

This theory was considered an advance over earlier theories.  In the 3rd Century BC, Aristotle had several theories about bird migrations.  His “transmutation” theory suggested that winter robins become redstarts in summer and summer warblers become blackcaps in winter.  His alternative theory was that some birds hibernate in winter.  Actually, the poorwill is the only known hibernating bird. In western North American deserts the poorwill hides in a torpor, avoiding winter food shortages.

Aristotle is the originator of another, particularly persistent hibernation theory.  His belief that swallows spent the winter months at the bottom of lakes and rivers, like fish, is found in “scientific” publications into the 19th century:  “’It appears certain that swallows become torpid during the winter, and even that they pass the season at the bottom of the water in the marshes.’”  (1)

That theory was tested in the 18th century in a series of grisly experiments that cost the lives of many hapless swallows, reminding us that animal rights are a very recent development in science.  On the other hand, we should empathize with early scientists who had little knowledge of the world outside their narrow range of mobility, given limited transportation.  As our world expands so does our knowledge of it.

Pfeilstorch (Arrow Stork)

Ms. Cooke believes the breakthrough in solving the migration mystery occurred in the 19th century when a stork arrived for nesting season with a huge wooden spear lodged in its neck, providing “irrefutable evidence that birds migrate over Africa.”  Ironically, as our knowledge of migration improves, the migration itself is rapidly failing because of anthropogenic (caused by humans) change.

  • Hunting of birds increases as the human population increases and episodically during famines caused by war and crop failures.
  • When farmers in Africa started using pesticides, many storks were killed when they ate poisoned grasshoppers and other large insects.
  • Pollution and drainage of wetlands for farmland caused a sharp decline in Europe’s stork population in the 20th Century:  “The last breeding pair was seen in Belgium in 1895, in Switzerland in 1950 and in Sweden in 1955.” (1)
  • Some migrating birds have quit migrating because the gardened landscapes of humans are more hospitable year around than their winter homes. Flocks of Canada geese are seen year around in the parks and open spaces in the Bay Area.
Canada geese, Lake Merritt, Oakland, California. Oakland Wiki

Ms. Cooke laments:  “[Swallow] numbers along with those of dozens of long-haul bird migrants across Europe, Asia and America, are in perilous decline, thanks to the combined effect of global warming, habitat destruction, hunting and pesticides.  Some scientists have suggested that long-haul migration could soon become a thing of the past.  These amazing avian vanishing acts, which puzzled us for so many generations, could themselves magically disappear, just as they’ve finally been demystified.  (1)

Progress, but humility is still needed

Ms. Cooke concludes that although we know more about animals than we did two thousand years ago, we are undoubtedly still making mistakes and must continually refine our understanding“The quest for truth is a long and winding road, littered with deep potholes.  Thankfully our methods are less brutal than those of our eye-popping past, but we are still stumbling along in the dark and making mistakes.  With the rise of efforts to discredit science, there has never been a greater need for truth.  Yet, wrong turns are an essential part of all scientific progress, which demands blue-sky thinking as it seeks out each new horizon in understanding.  As long as our egos or dogmatic beliefs are not to blame, we should not be afraid to continue to make wondrous mistakes…” (1)

Science is a process that is never done.  We celebrate new discoveries, but we must never think of them as the end of the story.  Our minds must always be open to new information if we are to continue to make progress as humans.

  1. Lucy Cooke, The Truth About Animals: Stoned sloths, lovelorn hippos, and other tales from the wild side of wildlife, Basic Books, 2018

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